Typically we get about two months of ice thickening to at least a foot, sometimes twice this amount in northern, high elevations of the New Jersey. In 2008 we had no more than two weeks of marginally safe ice; to get no safe ice over winter’s course is very rare.
For any first timers at ice fishing, paying heed to safety is a life requirement. I never recommend any newcomer go out on ice fewer than five inches thick of clear, hard ice--not refrozen. No one really wants to go out on a deep lake for the first time, poking ahead of himself nervously with a splitting bar, and no adequate knowledge about whether or not the ice he stands on will give way to water that would kill him in 10 minutes. Get a guide to show you how until you feel comfortable and knowledgeable. Joining the Knee Deep Club of Lake Hopatcong may suffice to meet people.
The larger lakes freeze unevenly. Well inside a cove—where pickerel and perch especially get caught—the ice may be quite safe. But walk towards the mouth of that cove, where winds have kept water open until it froze an inch the night before, and into the water you go. Always, no matter how safe the ice, wear a pair of ice spikes available at many sporting goods shops. If you do go through, as unlikely as this is, the points can be jammed into ice so you can pull yourself out, then belly squirm away from the thin area.
In my experience, there’s really no other outdoor pursuit like ice fishing. I have, many times, broken the thin ice of Barnegat Bay as I ploughed in bodily, wearing layered wetsuits for commercial clamming. Once I worked in the bay for five hours beginning at dawn with 10 degrees Fahrenheit and snow, ending at 17 degrees, 45 mph winds, and the wind chill 29 below, that’s the figure I heard on the radio. Clamming was more of an adventure than ice fishing. But ice fishing is serene yet plenty adventuresome. It allows you to get in touch with nature in quiet, leisurely ways, so long as not too many snowmobiles, quads, and power augers are nearby. Plenty of fish species get caught in our region—pickerel, largemouth and smallmouth bass, muskies, northern pike, walleyes, trout species, channel catfish, hybrid stripers, and all manner of panfish including roving yellow perch in some waters.
First ice is best ice. The “black ice” we sometimes have before snow blocks sunlight reaching through clear water depths, often safely covering two to 10-acre ponds that freeze first (and evenly). It’s easy to cut with a splitting bar since it’s not thick as a vault door. Sunlight’s the secret to this fishing. Try to get out on a cloudless day, the kind of day that “isn’t good for fishing.” Fish water 10 feet deep or shallower, clear water among residual weeds preferably, bait tip-ups with live shiners, and try some chrome finished spoons using short jigging rods.
Shiner scales serve the schooling behavior of these fish, since the flashes of reflected light confuse perceptions of predators. But when isolated on a hook beneath a tip-up device (available at many sporting goods stores), these light-reflecting shields do just the opposite, attracting gamefish like a beacon to zero in upon and hit. Silvery, chrome spoons like small Kastmasters do the same.
I go for largemouth and pickerel when I have first ice opportunity, ice which hasn’t been corrupted yet by melting and refreezing. These two species prowl relatively shallow water penetrated by light. With adequate fish holding depths nearby (if any), and fairly thick residual vegetation present if the pond or lake has any (hard cover like fallen trees in combination with weeds can be excellent) fish may be skittish, off the feed, and in the thickest of cover, but will strike by aggressive reaction, just as they do under summer cold fronts. I’ve experienced tip-up flags flying high, bass stripping off five or ten yards of line and dropping shiners, refusing to swallow. After first ice, when a bass takes a shiner under a tip-off, it will strip the spool if you don’t get to it in time.